Traveling to paint is a wonderful occupation, but there are numerous challenges for the plein air artist to deal with which can dampen the spirits at times. There can be language barriers to figuring out how to get where we want to go or prohibitive regulations of which we may be unaware. Sometimes there are pop-up transportation strikes or perhaps, as happened to me, the hotel gives you the wrong passport back! Then there is the issue of equipment—how much do we really need to be burdened with? The list goes on and one must be enthusiastic about coping with these kinds of inconveniences to really enjoy it. Preparation helps. See The Ultimate Backpack and Going Mobile: A Checklist for Painting Overseas.
We have found that despite those minor annoyances, the payoffs for the traveling artist are large and long-lasting. We always gather a mountain of reference materials—paintings and photographs which we can develop into studio paintings later. We invariably have unexpected adventures and meet fascinating people. Some of those adventures we have shared with you on The Artist’s Road. This demonstration was painted recently, but the reference images were made some years ago. A good example of one of those payoffs we mentioned.
When we travel, especially in Europe, there is always more to take in than we can paint at any one time. We make quick studies in our sketchbooks or on small oil panels as often as we can. For the rest, we must use the camera. Knowing what the camera can and won’t do visually is of utmost importance to getting the most out of our travel time. To help you with this, we have written three important articles to explain the workings of a modern digital camera. See, The Artist's Guide to Digital Cameras.
Those articles are a good starting point. Beyond those, perhaps the best way to learn is to do what we often do. Take a photo of something you wish to paint near you and immediately return to your studio and transfer it to a viewer like an iPad. Then paint it while the original scene is still fresh in your mind. (A viewer is important because it uses projected light to display the image making it more like the original source, rather than a dull print.) Do this a few times and you will become quite sensitive to what the camera is not capturing and may not be capable of capturing the way your eye does.
This demonstration illustrates how I recreate my original impression of a scene from a photograph and a small sketch. In this instance, many years have passed, but that is not an obstacle. I can look at the photo I took and realize what qualities in the image are not there. The photo is for detail and general light and color only. The purpose of this demonstration is not so much to show watercolor strokes or techniques, but to show how I recapture inspiration and build a successful painting.
In the studio, I use either a John Pike Palette or a Masterson Palette. I paint only on Arches watercolor paper, either a block of 140# cold press as shown, or a sheet of 300# cold press. I love the surface and behavior of Arches. Over the last forty years we have become good friends. I always have plenty of water on hand! I cut open a heavy plastic 64 oz. laundry soap bottle and use that for my rinse water. It is helpful also to have a squirt bottle nearby to create pools of color or refill my palette.
My palette colors are laid out like a color wheel—from warm to cool to make things easy. In its simplest form, I use a split-primary system of a warm and cool of each primary color. Two reds, two yellows, two blues, plus the earth colors of Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber. For speed, on large sheets of paper, I often add pre-mixed secondaries like Sap Green or Viridian or a Violet. Some paintings require extra special colors, so those are in there also, but may not be needed. For very dark passages I like to use Prussian Blue mixed either warm or cool. I always like to try new colors. I don’t want my palette to be too predictable, so lately I have been using Indian Yellow. You can see the effect of that color in this painting right off the bat. The most important thing about watercolor is to buy the very best professional grade colors, or our efforts will not produce good results. Student grade is a waste of time and money. Same goes for paper.
When it comes to brushes, I also buy professional equipment. I store my brushes in a strong but lightweight Monaco Silver Brush case as shown. I like this type of case because the brushes I use most often are out on the left and held snug by elastic bands, while my other spares and special-use brushes are in the zippered side. On the right of that is my clutch pencil, kneaded eraser, Siberian squirrel-hair mop, sea sponge and a very fine, sharp Kafka #6 liner with its own plastic retainer. For my main go-to brushes, I love the Richeson synthetic series 9000, size 20. I keep two of those at the ready. After those, Richeson 1”, 3/4” and 1/2” flats, a Royal Langnickel 1” oval sky wash, a Loew-Cornell series 7020 round, size 14 and a Richeson series 7000 round, size 12, complete my regular set. I try new types of brushes all the time, but it is rare when one exceeds the performance of these. For in-depth information about watercolor brushes, see: Watercolor Brushes - The Real 411.
Photo of the Dordogne River from Domme
This painting is my attempt to express the profound beauty and soul-stirring light which fills the valley of the Dordogne River, France, as seen from the hilltop village of Domme. See: A Painting Trip to the Dordogne Valley. This is one of those places in the world which are visually stunning and culturally ancient. There are famous caves nearby where the first artists used charcoal and ochres to draw the world around them over 40,000 years ago. It is hard to describe the feeling one has standing at an overlook in Domme, looking down upon the fields and hills as the sun fills the valley with radiance. It was the “Golden Hour”—7 pm, on a spring evening and the daily flights of hot air balloons were just taking off. Magical!
Working from my iPad photo and sketch, I lightly drew my cartoon image on my Arches 12 x 16” block. I use an HB lead for this because it is soft enough not to dent the paper but hard enough not to smear graphite all over the paper. Erasures, if any, are made with the non-abrasive kneaded eraser, which can also erase simply by pressure lifting the graphite, rather than by rubbing. I draw only what I need to guide me along—no details.
I generally prefer to work light to dark. My focal point in this painting is the light on the river. This is where I start painting. The overall color behind most of the foreground and the sky is a warm yellow. For this first wash I decided to use the Indian Yellow. Indian Yellow is a new formulation of an old pigment. In its contemporary form, it is wonderfully intense and transparent. The color varies with the amount of water, so one can get almost a Cadmium Yellow at the light end to an Orange on the dark end. Wonderful!
As soon as the Indian Yellow was dry, I painted in the hills on the horizon wet into wet with Cerulean Blue. Each of these shapes is a classic graded wash, top to bottom, painted one at a time. Moving forward in space, I glazed a thin wash of Sap Green mixed with Indian Yellow over the low hills, trees and fields.
After that wash was completely dry, I began to finish the background by introducing some Cobalt into the light green hills, glazing that transparent wash over the Indian Yellow/ Sap Green to create the soft greens. The darker blue hills on the right had a bit of Prussian Blue added to them. I painted around the orange shape of the balloon. Working background to foreground, I then concentrated on the trees lining the river and that wonderful light effect of glare on the water and trees. This had to be perfectly executed to read correctly, so I worked a small area at a time, wet into wet, painting and lifting until it looked right. I took my time with this. Once done, I began to work out from the river and build forms in the landscape.
Now that the hardest part was done—the glare of sun on water—I could relax into the rest of the landscape. It is important in any picture not to get caught up in rendering unnecessary or peripheral details—details which the camera always captures, but which the eye does not. I try to paint these wet into wet in a suggestive manner. Keeping them a bit out of focus also helps and creates a natural looking scene. I also took liberties with that violet color in the turned fields, which were a cool brown to black in my reference. Violet is a complement of yellow making it a good choice for color impact.
Soaring - The Finished Painting
I realized while I was bringing the painting to a finish that the river needed a surface to complete the illusion of water. For this I used a wet into wet wash of Naples Yellow and Cerulean Blue. This also tied together the background and foreground so that the picture didn’t just run off the bottom of the page as it seems to in the previous image. The hot air balloon detail I kept small and almost unnoticeable on purpose. While it is ostensibly the subject of the title, "Soaring" also refers strongly to the feeling of the painting more than the fact of it. If the emotion comes through in our work, then it will be successful. No amount of technique or details can substitute for that.
Soaring Watercolor 12 x 16"
This demonstration illustrates how I recreate my original impression of a scene from a photograph and a small sketch. This is to show you how I recapture my original inspiration and build a successful watercolor painting.
Filled with inspirational examples by the masters of nightime painting, this little book is sure to fire up your creative energies. Never tried painting at night? We show you how it's done with a step-by-step-oil demo and a tale of night painting in the wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Primer on Night Painting - Nocturnes is a 7 x 7" PDF download with 40 pages of text and images. It includes a gallery of paintings by masters of the nocturne, information to inspire and encourage you in your plein air nocturne painting, an illustrated step-by-step demo and tips for working in pastel and oil. Also available in a softcover edition. Check out the tools and other products that we use in our own art and travels in The Artist's Road Store. We only offer things for sale that we enthusiastically believe in.
We are artists, authors and teachers with over 40 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals. You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below. About AnnAbout John Hulsey Trusty Studios We are also regular contributors to the Plein Air blog at Artist Daily.